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Pope John Paul Visit to Rome Central Synagogue

April 04, 1998

In this week’s Torah Portion, we read about the laws of sacrifice. It begins with these words: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command Aaron and his sons, This is the ritual of the burnt offering. The burnt offering shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it…a perpetual fire shall be kept burning” {Leviticus 6:1-2,6}

The Torah speaks of sacred fire, but our People has also known a different kind of fire: a profane fire which offered up burnt offerings “all night until morning” and then again from morning until night, “a perpetual fire” that was unholy. I speak, of course, of the fire of the Shoah, the flames of the Holocaust which devoured our people by the millions. In 1943, a survivor of the Vilna ghetto, Israeli poet Abraham Sutzkever, wrote a poem called “Burnt Pearls”:

“It is not just because my words quiver
like broken hands grasping for aid,
or that they sharpen themselves
like teeth on the prowl in darkness,
that you, written word, substitute for my world,
flare up the coals of my anger.

It is because your sounds
glint like burnt pearls
discovered in an extinguished pyre
and no one – not even I – shredded by time
can recognize the woman drenched in flame
for all that remains of her now
are these gray pearls
smoldering in the ash.”

I think of the words of Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, who in a poem titled ‘And This Is Your Glory’ writes:

“In my great silence and my small scream, I inspire
Mixed kinds. I was in water and I was in fire.
In Jerusalem and in Rome…”

Water and fire. Jerusalem and Rome.

In the Summer of 1986, I traveled to Jerusalem and Rome, pivotal places in religious history which to this day excite passions unlike those found in few other locales in the world. While in Rome, I spent time in the Jewish Ghetto, and it was there that I met three young men, each proudly displaying the Star of David attached to a golden necklace. We chatted at length, and then I asked them what they thought of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Rome’s Central Synagogue just a few weeks ago.

On that historic occasion, the Pope and Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff embraced in Europe’s oldest congregation – dating back to the 2nd century of the Common Era – and one thousand people, forty of whom were survivors of Nazi death camps, burst into thunderous applause and openly wept. Over thirty years ago, the Second Vatican Council, working under the hand of Pope John XXIII, issued a major document entitled Nostra Aetate {‘Our Age’} which addressed anti-Semitism, as well as the liturgies that define and distinguish both religious traditions, and how to resolve conflicting truth claims. Nostra Aetate was followed ten years later, in 1975, by the Vatican Guidelines, and ten years after that, in 1985, by ‘Notes for Preaching and Catechesis.’ That twenty year period saw a steady evolution of thought and expression on the part of the Vatican and its leaders. Nostra Aetate made no reference to the Holocaust, while ‘Notes for Preaching and Catechesis’ mandated the development of Holocaust curricula to “help in understanding the meaning for the Jews of the Holocaust and its consequences.” While Nostra Aetate, in 1965, did not refer to the State of Israel, the 1985 ‘Notes’ document addressed the “religious attachment” between the Jewish People and the land of Israel as one that “finds its roots in the Biblical tradition” and as an essential aspect of Jewish covenantal “fidelity to God.” While Nostra Aetate presented the Church as the new people of God, the ‘Notes for Preaching and Catechesis’ document twenty years later stated that Jews are to be presented as “the people of God of the Old Covenant which has never been revoked by God” and that both Jews and Christians “are driven by the command to love our neighbor.” One could persuasively make the case that the Vatican came farther in those twenty years than it had in the previous two centuries. The 1985 document, ‘Notes for Preaching and Catechesis,’ was a major step forward for a Church that moves with glacial speed, and for whom change is not always welcome.

So I asked the young men who stood in the lengthening shadows of the Roman ghetto, “What do you think of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the synagogue?” One of them turned the question back to me: “Do you know when it will matter?” he asked, and then quickly answered his own question: “When the Pope returns for a second visit.” He had a point.

The Pope, in his annual State of the World address this past February, spoke about the violations of international law by Saddam Hussein that led the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions against Iraq. In his speech, he referred to the people of Iraq and said, “The weak and the innocent cannot pay for the mistakes for which they are not responsible.” I thought of his words as we awaited the March release of what was anticipated to be a major document from the Vatican’s Commission For Religious Relations With The Jews, entitled ‘We Remember: A Reflection On The Shoah.’ The Shoah is The Conflagration, the Holocaust. It was eleven years ago that Pope John Paul II told a group of American rabbis that he intended to commission a study on Catholicism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In the interim, he became the first Pope to visit a synagogue. Eight years later, in 1994, he prompted the Vatican’s recognition of Israel, and in that same year he was host at the Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust to which he invited 200 survivors of the Shoah. However, the contents of ‘We Remember: A Reflection On The Shoah’ are very disappointing. The title should more accurately have been ‘We Avoid Reflections On The Holocaust.’

The document accurately refers to the Shoah as an “unspeakable tragedy, which can never be forgotten” and voices the desire to “turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future.” Yet it denies that Christian anti-Semitism contributed to the Nazi’s anti-Semitism, which the document – that is to say, the Vatican – sees as the product of a “thoroughly modern pagan regime.” The document’s studied tendency to separate religious responsibility from political atrocity is alarming. It was a regime that isolated, victimized, arrested, brutalized, tortured and murdered millions and millions of children, women and men, aided and abetted by millions and millions of people who had been weaned on the rhetoric of anti-Semitism, often in the name of the Church. I urge you to read Hitler’s Willing Executioners – Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust {Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996} as well as Nazi Germany and The Jews {Saul Friedlander: HarperCollins, 1997}. The Church was content to observe the annihilation of a People and do nothing, or to simply pay lip service to higher ideals which it was not prepared to enact. That a few courageous Catholic priests and nuns tried to save the lives of Jews, often at the cost of their own lives, is not enough to redeem the Church from its complicity in enabling the Nazis in its killing frenzy. Pope Pius XII has been nominated for sainthood, but his refusal throughout the war to denounce the Nazis may have cost millions of lives. That Pope’s quarrel was with Nazi paganism, not with anti-Semitism: in the encyclical of 1937, we were referred to as the people “destined to crucify Him.”

The document’s authors explain that they wrote for a Church whose largely non-European practitioners should not have to assume too much Holocaust guilt. But how does denying the truth honor a Church whose goal in releasing ‘We Remember’ is intended to be, in its own words, an act of teshuvah? The Church’s desire to “express a deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age” and “turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future” rings hollow because it mocks truth and destroys memory.

I wish that the sensitivity with which Pope John Paul II referred to the people of Iraq – “the weak and the innocent [who] cannot pay for the mistakes for which they are not responsible” – had been brought to bear in the name of historic truth on behalf of our People in a document eleven years in the making. Alas, the document is decades, even centuries, too late. Long-awaited, it is a major disappointment.

I think of the words of Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, who in a poem entitled ‘And This Is Your Glory’ writes: “In my great silence and my small scream…I was in water and I was in fire. In Jerusalem and in Rome.”

In water and in fire. In Jerusalem and in Rome. Then, as now.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin